McLaughlin's Bakery, diagonally opposite the Maitland Mercury building in High Street, was an institution in Maitland for more than a century.
Its founder, John McLaughlin, was one of four Maitland people who lost their lives to floods in 1870.
At dusk on March 21, in his own boat with four other men (William Miles, William Graham, John Mason and JT Tegg), McLaughlin was rowing from East Maitland to West Maitland in strong winds, a fast current and a heavy "sea".
In deep water near Louth Park Rd they struck a fence and the boat was holed and sank. Three of the men clung desperately to a willow tree and another to the fence but McLaughlin, heavy in thigh-high boots which would quickly have filled with water, was drowned.
A young boy named Atkinson, riding bareback on a horse through the water, raised the alarm.
Boats set out to rescue the survivors, cold and wet after a harrowing three-hour wait and probably in danger of dying from hypothermia. In today's environment young Atkinson would have been awarded a medal for bravery.
McLaughlin was buried in the Hiland Crescent Cemetery, the hearse according to The Mercury followed by "a large concourse of people" until it was stopped by floodwater over the road at East Maitland.
The story says much about the risks of entering floodwaters. Probably the men could not swim. Swimming lessons were not the norm in Australia until well into the following century.
At almost the same time that McLaughlin died, another man (John McFadyen) drowned in floodwaters while walking home from East Maitland to Pitnacree. Presumably he waded into the water, lost his footing and was swept to his death.
In all, six people in the history of the Maitland area have been swept off horses during floods and drowned.
A further six apart from McLaughlin died as a result of accidents involving boats and five died while trying to save property or helping others to escape the floodwaters.
A small number died in their homes or when their houses fell into the river.
Farmers of long ago took great risks to rescue cattle from flooded paddocks and swamps, though only one (James Gould, in 1864) is known to have died in the effort.
Several people, mostly children, drowned as a result of slipping down wet and greasy riverbanks as floods subsided, and one 10-year old (James Abrahams of West Maitland in 1890) fell into the river while gathering firewood.
This was an important activity during floods, vegetative debris being of value for cooking and heating, and the task often fell to the young. "Fishing" the river for pumpkins and grammas was another risky job commonly done by children during floods.
Drowning was a common mode of death in riverside communities in the 19th century, and it occurred outside of flood times as well as during them.
Undoubtedly, though, drowning was most common during floods. More than 50 Maitland people have drowned in floods since 1840.
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